Winter 2019


Commitment to Character

Marielle Heller is a stickler for detail, which is driven by the inner life of her protagonists


Director Marielle Heller (Photo: Brian Davis)

Marielle Heller was a theater actress struggling to find nuanced roles when her younger sister gave her a copy of cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner's unflinching 2002 graphic novel Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures. In lead protagonist Minnie, a 15 year old in 1976 San Francisco who loses her virginity to her mother's boyfriend, then enthusiastically tape records herself documenting the affair, Heller knew she'd found the part she'd been waiting for.

Eventually, she secured the rights to Diary, adapted it into a well-reviewed one act in which she starred as the titular teenage girl. After its Off-Broadway run, she asked herself what's next. Turning Diary into a film script seemed natural, but also, she surprised herself to realize the notion that she should direct it, too. "At the time, it wasn't, 'I want to be a director,'" says Heller. "It was, 'I want to direct this.'"

To prep herself, she spent five weeks in 2012 at Sundance's writing and directing labs. What caught Heller off guard was that she loved everything about directing, from breaking down scenes with actors to hashing out how to make the film look almost like a Polaroid snapshot with fading color with her DP Brandon Trost. "Weirdly, it all felt very natural to me," says Heller, who credits her knowledge of the nuts and bolts of directing to time spent on the sets of her director husband, Jorma Taccone (Popstar). "Somehow I had a lot of the skills that I didn't know were required for directing. I didn't realize that my life had been leading in that direction."

Since then, a hallmark of Heller's budding oeuvre—besides Diary, she directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? and the upcoming, still untitled Tom Hanks-as-Mr. Rogers movie—is that while set in the past, none of her movies announce themselves as period pieces. In fact, self-conscious representations of bygone years is such a pet peeve of hers that it's one of the first conversations she'll have with her crew and cast. Heller's tone-setting introductory speech goes something like this: "We're not doing a costume party version of this era. We're trying to have the era truthfully and subtly come through, and it should always be based in character. There has to be that authenticity." Every stick of furniture and item of clothing has to pass the Heller test. She'll ask herself, "Does this couch tell a story about this person? Does this jacket tell a story about this person?"

Her performing history has proved invaluable, and not just because she's fluent in actor-speak. Having made a trio of movies about real people—Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoir of Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer who turned to literary forgery to make ends meet—she has spent a lot of time making mental calculations about how much or little an actor should know about their true-life counterparts.

"Every actor is different, but it's a very fine line when it comes to how much information they have versus how much they need to let their imagination fill in the blanks," says Heller, who, when Can You Ever Forgive Me? star Melissa McCarthy expressed trouble with research, let her think there was almost nothing available. (In truth, Israel, a grouchy wit, gave personality-rich recorded interviews when her memoir was published.) Her reasoning? Why let McCarthy get distracted trying to perfect a spot-on imitation when most people didn't know what Israel looked or sounded like? "I wanted [the performance] to feel rooted in reality," says Heller. "We weren't doing an SNL sketch. The more important thing was that she had the essence right and was connected emotionally to her character."

Though Heller's three films are all set in the U.S., she enjoys casting actors from other countries in prominent roles—Diarystar Bel Powley is British, as is Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s Dolly Wells, who plays a bookseller attracted to Israel; Matthew Rhys, who is Welsh, plays an American journalist based on the magazine writer Tom Junod in the Mr. Rogers movie. That said, she knows it means a bit of extra patrolling. "I always just ride them," says Heller, recalling the day she overheard Dolly Wells, between takes of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, telling a funny anecdote to Melissa McCarthy. "I was like, 'Great story, Dolly. Tell it to her in your American accent.'"

Marielle Heller, center, is flanked by actors Dolly Wells and Melissa McCarthy on the set of Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Photo: Mary Cybulski/20th Century Fox)

"I think there's a different power dynamic," she says. "No matter what, if I ask a woman to take her shirt off, it's going to be different than if a man asks her to."

While gender inequality in Hollywood is an ongoing issue, Heller turns it to her advantage. "As women we are very accustomed to putting ourselves in the shoes of male leads," she says. "So it's not that I can only relate to the women in a scene, I think I can relate and feel like I'm part of each character. I tend to think in a more holistic way about all [characters]."

But it's also Heller's belief that sex scenes are approached differently when it's a woman behind the camera. In Diary, for example, when things get R-rated, it is always from the viewpoint of her teenage lead, Minnie. The only time the audience sees her without clothes is when she is examining her own body in her bedroom mirror. "I was very aware that I wasn't trying to exploit Minnie—the scenes were a reflection of her emotional state, rather than his, and were always rooted in what she was thinking and wanting and feeling," says Heller, who was nominated for the DGA's First-Time Feature Film award for Diary.

Because Heller and Taccone have a young son, they established a rule that if one of them takes on a big project, the other one stays home and assumes the role of primary parent. But in her first year of motherhood—she gave birth five weeks before Diary premiered at Sundance in 2015—she turned to TV, directing shows like Transparent and Casual. "Making a movie is an enormous commitment, years of your life, and it has to be something that you're totally in love with," says Heller. "[With TV] it was the perfect amount of time to feel artistically fulfilled, to remind myself what I love about directing even if it was for a much shorter period of time."

Her decision to make the Mr. Rogers movie, she says, came about just as naturally. "I read it and thought, 'Dammit, I have to make this movie. I love it too much.'"

Lately, Heller has been thinking that instead of a master planner, she's more of a "take things as they come" type. "I think that instead of laying out ahead of time where my career is going to go, I try to make decisions that feel like they're the best steps for me in that moment," says Heller. "I don't think I'm as conscious of the pressure [to succeed] as maybe I should be. The creative challenges are there, whether you're making a movie for $600,000 or $20 million. No matter what, when you make a movie you never feel like you have enough money, that's the weird truth of it. It doesn't matter the size of your budget—you're always stretched."

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